Interview with PR: Artist
“Perhaps a consortium of artists and groups, working with the council, could have spaces allocated to them either for free or it could be in exchange for services, working with communities and providing education.”
Artist and Educator, PR, has observed and been a part of, an increasing trend of artist evictions and disappointing building re-use, and the complete eradication of community art residences. Her current space-finding mission has involved joining an artists’ union that has marked the provision of artists’ spaces and professional value
Tell me about your practice
I am primarily an artist and in the second instance, I’m an educator. Yesterday I had an interesting conversation about the definition of an artist, and we discussed the idea that one that works in the arts should call oneself an ‘art worker’ rather than an artist, because the term artist has these connotations that are still very much connected with the figure of the individual artist, which has all these connotations of the genius and the special individual.
So, if you want to distance yourself from that, you should call yourself an art worker. However, during this conversation I realised that the term ‘art worker’ comes from the US where there was a group called the Art Workers Coalition, active in New York in the late 60s/ early 70s. They defended the use of the term art worker. I don’t actually have a problem with calling myself an artist because I think I create art and I think it’s something specific, maybe something different from art worker.
The conversation stemmed from questioning the usefulness, or not, to start a union of artists. We also debated whether it’s worth having a union of artists as something distinct from the trade union. Why would an artist want to distinguish his or her practice and not become part of the trade union? Why do you need to separate yourself, and if you do that, how do you define art work; what is special about art work, that is not part of any other trade? And then, why call yourself an artist and not an art worker? So, that was the debate.
Tell me about the presence of artists in your area of London.
The creative group of artists and cultural workers are very predominant in the area of south London, in Brixton and in Camberwell. I think their contributions to the area have been very visible, especially over the last few years. They are really important in terms of the identity of the area and I think they’re getting a very bad deal because as soon as the forces of real estate or capitalism can make use of the benefits creative groups bring to the area, they are kicked out of the area, basically. It’s happening to people working in the arts, and also to people working in the markets. The working class, of which most artists belong to, are getting a very bad deal. I pay a lot of taxes, especially living as a single individual, paying for a lot of services I’m am not really benefitting from. So, my contribution is huge, in addition to other things I’m doing as well: working with people and contributing to the social fabric of the area. There are a lot of social projects, both in Lambeth and in Southwark, and nothing of that seems to be taken into consideration so we’re always in a very vulnerable position and I think we should be taken more seriously.
Describe your personal workspace.
My studio I had in Lambeth, was taken away last year. Stockwell Studios was used by artists for 25 years and generating a lot of good things for the area. They were sold to a private real estate developer to create luxury apartments and we were left with no studios.
We then got studios in Southwark so we started working in another borough and consequently we stopped to contributing to the Lambeth area, as we were. The studio I currently have in Southwark is provided by Acava. They’re a non-profit, organised charity. Acava sub-let the Southwark building to artists, and they continue to look for other spaces. The search has not been easy for them. And artists, individually, can’t find a place either because the rents are too high. Even though there are a lot of vacant spaces, they’re kept empty. Landlords and the council prefer to keep the spaces empty/vacant rather than give spaces, for short term leases to artists or workers, to work with the community.
They’re holding onto spaces instead of facilitating a cultural life in the borough. I have two options right now. Either I go take a studio, beyond the M25 at an affordable price, or I have to work from home. I can’t afford the studios I’ve been looking at that are nearer central London – they’re too expensive.
The sense of community is damaged. Because one of the things of being in studio spaces with other artists is that you share resources and a lot of other things. This is crucial if you want to build a practice and a sense of community. I think that sense of isolation is very negative, if you work on your own at home. Then if you have to travel far away to your studio, it becomes very expensive. If you want to transport yourself, materials, and buy food, it becomes really complicated and pricey. I depend on public transport, if I cannot cycle.
Some of the people that have to move from our current studio building are going to be homeless also, as they have had live-work space at the site. I’ve only had two studios in the UK. But, I’ve been involved in witnessing evictions of artist colleagues and friends, in the south London since I arrived here, at the end of the 90s. I did a project in Peckham in ’99, or something like that, it was a similar situation, dealing with the redevelopment of Peckham and also a fake consultation process, followed by the eviction of people. So, I’ve been witnessing a lot of different things happening in different boroughs.
And then there was Area 10 as well. It was an artist space in Peckham used for performances, exhibitions, and studios, but it was destroyed and there’s still nothing there after all these years…the building was demolished. And Area 10 was there before Peckham became the hub that it is now.
Now that I’m part of the union, we made the issue of artist work spaces one of the priorities. There are other priorities also, such as rates, payments to artists and trying to regulate that. So we said we will start looking at different options and mapping out what is happening in London. The union had its first meeting in the north of England in May. And the first London meeting was in London 2 weeks ago. They have approximately 500 members and it’s £30per year.
Can you give an example of a great working art education-type space.
Regarding my work as an educator, I would like to mention Cooltan Arts, in Southwark, who I have worked with. They are a great organisation working with people in mental health distress – I think that’s how they would like to describe themselves. So it’s an organisation run by mental health service users.
What disappoints you in terms of city-shaping?
Some of these deals are very bad for the council and the area. Many times, developers come and promise something like 40% of a building will be sold at a very low price because 40% is going to be social housing, and then after the deal is made, they change terms. It just happened in Brixton, near the Brixton Village, on Coldharbour Lane. Developers bought one of the buildings there for a very affordable price because developers promised 40% affordable housing but then they changed this to 10% or less. They then reason that it’s not feasible, it’s not profitable. No one holds them to their earlier promise.
The same thing happened with Stockwell studios. It was obviously not a good scheme they were proposing, no one was in favour of the scheme. Only one councillor voted in favour, so we were defeated by one vote. I spoke to the councillors that voted – I was very pissed off – and they told me they were instructed to pass on the vote. That was it. So, instead of voting in favour they just abstained. No vote, no vote…one vote. One vote in favour is all they needed.
What are the solutions for securing space for artists?
In Portugal, Lisbon Council has a scheme in which they allocate empty properties for artists. I’m not saying there’s enough properties – I don’t think there is enough. But there are a lot of very low-rent studios available, provided by the council.
I think that one initiative that would help and that could be led by the council, or by a consortium of local artists working in partnership with the council, would be for artists to have access to a database of empty property and be able to occupy these properties. This would be a situation that would not have to be mediated in this kind of occupation by organizations like Camelot, that try to place artists or young people as guardians of properties. I think it was extremely good in the beginning but now it’s extremely expensive and I don’t think it’s the best solution. Perhaps a consortium of artists and groups working with the council could have spaces allocated to them either for free, or it could be in exchange for services, working with communities and providing education.
There’s so much stuff that artists can share and it would be really good to share some of their skills and work in exchange for space or at least a part-rent/skills exchange. An exchange of services would be better for everyone. Invest in that. Perhaps the council could allocate a staff member for the mediating role.